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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 21, September 6, 1976.

Unions — what's Political ?

page 3

Unions — what's Political ?

At the centre of last week's Government/Waterside action was George Goddard, the Waterside Workers representative on the Campaign against Nuclear Warships committee. John Ryall interviewed him for Salient.

Could you background for me just how the present confrontation with the Government came about?

The dispute which has affected the movement of shipping in the port of Wellington arises out of the introduction by the Government of a nuclear vessel into our harbour. It has done this with the knowledge of the concern expressed by the harbour unions and many other groups of the threat of nuclear warfare, the desire for a South Pacific nuclear peace zone, and the banning of the stockpiling and manufacture of nuclear weapons. The Government also knew of the proposed union action. The confrontation was engineered by the Government in the light of this knowledge.

Why did the Harbour unions take the particular action that they did?

We considered the action we took to be in the immediate health and safety interests of the port workers and more particularly the men, women and children in the Wellington area. We were concerned about the immediate health hazard from such a ship in the case of a breakdown or accident, but more importantly was our complete abhorrence of nuclear weapons warfare and the effect that this visit would have on drawing us deeper into the conflict between the world's great powers, with the consequent enhancement of the danger of our becoming a nuclear target, whether through deliberate policy or through accident.

You have been accused of ignoring the public in the action you have taken in closing down the Cook Strait ferries. Do you believe you have?

Let me say straight away that among our men there is the greatest compassion and concern for the hardships that the ferry travellers have been put to. However, we didn't ask the ship in. It was done by a cynical and deliberate act of Government policy aimed at possibly even whipping up hysteria against the harbour workers and diverting attention away from the life and death matters involved in the protest action.

We cannot feel responsible for the arrival time of the ship, but not to have taken action would have been to ignore the long-term interests of the people who were inconvenienced as well as the other people in Wellington and throughout New Zealand.

How much support have you actually had from the public? Is this possible to gauge?

The material gauge that we can employ is that up to nine o'clock last Tuesday (31 August) we had received at the office 367 telegrams and were told by the Post Office that our P.O. Box was full with more. Of those telegrams, two were definitely opposed to our action and urged us to go back to work. Of the rest, which all promised support, only about six urged us to get the ferries moving. Other gauges of support, I suppose, could be taken from the picket outside the inter-island ferry wharf where three-to-one of the people passing gave gestures of support, such as a wave, thumbs-up, or even stopping to give a donation to help defray expenses. We had a placard up saying "Honk if you support us!" and the cars going past honking were by far in the vast majority.

What role can groups such as student organisations play in supporting stands such as the one taken by the maritime unions?

On the perhaps not too valid assumption that this Government will respond in some positive way to expressed public opinion, the more groups and individuals who state their opinions on the basic issue, the better. The issue is whether or not New Zealand should be dragged into the nuclear consequences of the increasing rivalry between the super powers or whether we should positively strive to establish a nuclear-free peace zone in our part of the world as a first step in a return to sanity. The moral and political actions and decisions of anyone in this dividing out of opinion is of great importance. I know that the workers involved in this present dispute would be warmed and heartened by expressions of support, but more by the knowledge that other New Zealanders are deciding to take as active a part as they are able in determining their own future.

What has been the Government response to the union action? Was it predictable?

The Government's response to the union action was in fact planned and designed before the action took place, and includes a variety of threats of well-defined or undefined character. It's my belief that amendments will be made to industrial legislation to outlaw political strikes, sympathy strikes, and the striking of anything but matches. Whether or not the port unions had taken this stand of conscience, such legislation will be enacted under some pretext or another. This is in line with the previous National Party administration's policy. It dates back for many years and is a necessary and inescapable thing for them to do if they wish to preserve the profit margins of their supporters in the dominating position in this society. Whether or not we moved the ferries this type of response could have been anticipated, and in fact the present dispute has merely given them an excuse to pass legislation unworthy in itself, but covered up to a degree by public sympathy for inconvenienced travellers, the right of the government to govern or other irrelevant ideas.

Television interviewers have questioned L Labour Minister Peter Gordon over whether he has backed down. He denied it. What do you think?

I think that the Government greatly underestimated (and Mr Gordon has stated this) the degree of public opposition to the presence of the nuclear ship in our harbour. Government were also somewhat surprised that the unions acted as quickly and in such a unified fashion as they did. Government could be considered to have backed down tactically, in this present situation, but only in terms of organising a more fundamental and determined attack on trade union organisation. There appears to have been a temporary ease off by the Government. But taking into account their general policy, I think this is merely appearance rather than reality.

Do you think a union should have the right to take political action?

I believe a union has the right (not should have the right) to take political action if it is to carry out one of the basic reasons for its existence. Trade unions have evolved historically from mainly the British background because they were necessary to protect the living standards and the social dignity of the people who are in thier ranks. Historically (see S. and B. Webb's, The History of Trade Unionism) they evolved in order to give the British working man some sort of self-regard and some ability to live as a person.

Political strikes cannot be defined. When does a strike become political? When is it not political? Any strike to amend industrial legislation or any action to take the relative proportion of wealth of the community out of the hands of one class and put it into another's is essentially political, and it is the intention of the National Party to destroy the ability to strike altogether. But they're pushing it uphill and the future will tell what the outcome will be.

George Goddard - confrontation engineered.

George Goddard - confrontation engineered.

What effects will the proposed legislation have on the day-to-day activities of your union?

I can't say. It's foolish to offer hostages to the future, especially to try and be precise. But I feel the Government's action will clear away any cobwebs of illusion in the minds of many New Zealanders as to where Government stands and whom they represent and many New Zealanders who are not trade unionists appreciate the role of trade unions in not only organising for economic issues, but wider social issues. They have been distressed by such moves by the Government.

It is not the first political strike, as some members of the National Party have so wrongly classed it. The first was in 1938 over the shipping of scrap iron to Japan. There was also opposition by unions towards Dutch shipping to and from Indonesia, during the crisis over the struggles for national independence. And we must not forget the action that was taken against French shipping over the nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll. These issues did affect the public interest at that time and the union members are also members of the public. The consensus of public opinion would now, many years after these events, probably be that the position of the unions then has been thoroughly vindicated. There is also the current ban against goods from Chile, which in the public mind is still a source of debate.

So, the idea that a political strike is a new thing is just rubbish and the Minister of Labour probably knows this better than I do, having had more experience with all aspects of it.

If this is true, then what is the Government's purpose in bringing down the new legislation?

I think the prime purpose of the Government is to seek to intimidate those trade unions who for the first time in a good number of years, have shown opposition to the drastic erosion of the living conditions of their members and have started organising to do something about it. The legislation has been introduced for universal application, but it will effect those who are not so well organised. Sir Francis Bacon said that laws likened to a cobweb in that the small flies get caught while the big ones break through. This is the same with industrial legislation. Those unions who can look after themselves tend to do so, those who are not so well organised will suffer the most. You can see that generally in society for example in the case of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who gets away with what you and I would be in the cooler for for many years to come.

If a nuclear ship comes into Wellington, will the Watersiders and other Harbour unions take the same action as they have now?

This will be determined by the members of the port unions. They will make their own decisions after a free and open discussion, as they did this one. I could not say precisely what will happen in the future, but I would guess that they will take appropriate forms of action. The present policy is opposition to the visit of any nuclear ships to the harbour. Until it's changed that policy will remain.